Impressive Commodore Perry Medal Tells the Story of Ninja Spies

Read the history of the Commodore Matthew Perry commemorative medal. Only one gold medal and 20 silver medals were minted! Did we mention ninjas?

Everyone has heard of ninjas, the secretive spies that served regional warlords in feudal Japan. Ninjas are popular characters today in the modern world, making appearances in video games, movies, and far more. However, they were not just characters and were based on real historical figures, including one particular ninja who has a connection to numismatics and a silver medal.

AUCTION PREVIEW: Commodore Perry Medal, SP62 Rare Silver Example, Julian PE-26. 2021 June 17 – 20 US Coins Signature Auction #1331

As the world economy and interconnectivity between nations grew in the 1800s, the Far East presented a new opportunity for American trade. United States President Millard Fillmore made a priority of this goal and sent Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy to Japan in 1853. Perry arrived in Tokyo harbor in July of 1853 with the intent of engaging in “battleship diplomacy,” a type of negotiation which entailed more aggression than negotiation.

During this time period, Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogun (great general). While the emperor still technically was in charge, the shogun held the real power. Japan also had very little outside influence from other nations by the 1850s, so the coming of the US to Japan was a warning sign that shogunate might decline in power.

While Japan did not have a fleet of warships at the ready, they did have ninjas. The ninja Sawamura Yasusuke secretly boarded Commodore Perry’s ship on a stealth mission. His goal was to spy and gather intelligence that could help Japan. While Yasusuke was successful in gathering documents, the language barrier meant that these were not all that useful to the shogunate. Even worse, the information that he obtained did not result in any real strategic advantage, as it mostly related the exploits of the crew rather than political or military information. The shogun eventually gave in to the Americans’ naval might and accepted that change could not be avoided entirely. A treaty with the US was signed in 1854, which began the transition to Japan’s imperial period and end of their isolation.

After he returned, the US Mint celebrated Commodore Perry’s success by striking a medal that commemorated his journey and the trade agreement. A single example was struck in gold and given to Perry directly, while just 20 pieces were struck in silver. These were primarily given as diplomatic gifts, such as to Perry’s officers.  Heritage Auctions will be selling one of the very few survivors struck in silver in the June US Coin Auction #1331. Graded PCGS SP62, this enormous medal measured 63 millimeters and is impressive in hand.

This medal last sold for just over $10,000 and should attract plenty of attention at auction. Check it out in auction 1331.

perry medal

Posted by Sarah Miller

Director of Numismatics, New York

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